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Designing At-home Laboratory Experiments Using Smart Phones and Basic Test Equipment for Senior Mechanical Engineering Students

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Remote Physical Laboratories: Experimentation and Laboratory-oriented Studies

Tagged Division

Experimentation and Laboratory-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


John Whitefoot University of Pittsburgh

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Dr. Whitefoot’s research interests include engineering education, energy system optimization, transportation policy, and transportation/energy integration. As a teaching professor within the MEMS department, his roles include course development, classroom instruction, and research on engineering education, with a focus on thermofluidic and experimental methods courses. Dr. Whitefoot has worked extensively in the automotive industry. Prior to his appointment in the Swanson School of Engineering, he was with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the Department of Transportation in Washington, DC, performing technical policy analysis for vehicle fuel economy regulations.

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Jeffrey S. Vipperman University of Pittsburgh

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Dr. Vipperman has been teaching from freshman to PhD students since 1997 and enjoys the unique challenges that each level presents. He is past recipient of the Swanson School of Engineering Beitle-Veltri Memorial Teaching Award and the Student Honor Roll, a award that is given by the students. Dr. Vipperman is also past Director of Mechanical Engineering Graduate Studies and currently serves as Vice Chair of the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department at the University of Pittsburgh. He currently teaches courses in measurements, acoustics, and random vibrations & signal analysis.

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A key educational component of laboratory experiments is the hands-on aspect: troubleshooting experimental setups, data collection and repeatability, honing data collection techniques to improve repeatability, and other forms of exploration and “learning by doing.” With remote learning mandated by the global pandemic, students were unable to attend laboratory courses in person during the summer term of 2020 at [Institution Name]. Thus, we developed a series of laboratory experiments for Mechanical Engineering seniors that could be done at home using simple, basic test equipment and also making use of the numerous sensors available in most smart phones. This paper will focus on the design and contents of these at-home laboratory experiments, the intended learning objectives, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Three at-home experiments were designed with different learning objectives. First, a strength of materials lab, which incorporated the learning objectives of creating a test procedure, test repeatability, statistical data analysis, and test uncertainty analysis. Second, an acoustic reverberation time experiment, which incorporated the learning objectives of applying test standards in measurements, creating digital filters, and performing spectral analysis. Third, a knee impact force lab, which incorporated design of experiments (DoE) and main effects analysis. The strength of materials lab required sending the students some basic test equipment, but the remaining two experiments primarily required the use of smart phone sensors and post-processing with various software. While the three at-home tests were fairly straightforward to complete, their procedural simplicity allowed students to collect data independently of their instructors with high enough data quality that analysis could be completed and understood. These three experiments were augmented with six fully on-line laboratories, where students watched videos and analyzed provided data.

Based on a qualitative examination and grading of the lab reports written by the students, all three at-home experiments were largely successful in teaching the expected learning objectives. The two experiments that relied mainly on the smart phone were more successful, in large part because they were procedurally simpler, and were successful enough that they will be considered for inclusion even in a non-pandemic academic term. Additionally, the logistics of sending equipment to students (and receiving it back from them) proved to be much more difficult than its added value justified. Thus, for future at-home labs we would focus only on using smart phone sensors and basic items that the students would be expected to have in their homes.

Whitefoot, J., & Vipperman, J. S. (2021, July), Designing At-home Laboratory Experiments Using Smart Phones and Basic Test Equipment for Senior Mechanical Engineering Students Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36928

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